There was a lot of John Wyndham around at home when I was a child and teenager but I didn’t try it because I thought it might disturb me too much. A sensitive soul, I couldn’t even cope with Doctor Who and I was 16 when it launched. Fast forward 15 years or so and I was in a new teaching job where there was a set of The Midwich Cuckoos in the stock cupboard. “Bite the bullet, Susan” I told myself. “You’re grown up now.” Well of course, I was hooked and went on to read everything Wyndham had written before his death in 1969.
Successive lockdowns have prompted me to a lot of rereading. Which Wyndham should I return to initially? In the end I plumped for The Chrysalids (1955) and I’m glad I did. Not only is the concept fascinating – and topical in the 21st century in a way I doubt Wyndhan foresaw fully – but it’s an extraordinarily compelling page turner.
Ten years after Heroshima, Wyndham is imagining a world almost destroyed by a nuclear war. We’re an unspecified number of centuries into the future. Pockets of people have somehow survived to breed on and the story is set in an enclosed community in Labrador. Strict, merciless religion rules – the Bible has miraculously survived from the world of the “old people”. But other rules have emerged too. No deviation – in plant, animal or human being – from the “perfect image of God” is allowed to survive. This means that a baby born with an extra toe, unusually long arms or, crucially, the ability to telepathise is sterilised and cast out into the wild fringes. “Deviant crops” are burned and unusual farm animals ritually slaughtered as “blasphemies”. There is no space whatever for evolution, development, change, tolerance or kindness. And of course there are an unusual number of “mutants” anyway because the world is still affected by radiation and nuclear fall out.
David, the narrator, and a small group of others like him, can communicate via “thought pictures” an ability they keep secret, obviously. Then life-threatening things happen and they have to take action, discovering as they do so that the world is bigger than they thought. I’m not giving away much because apart from the intriguing ideas the book is discussing, it’s a really exciting story – with masses of suspense – and I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it.
Today we worry a great deal about including people who are in any way different and huge efforts are made to accommodate and welcome them in all fields of life – at least in the Western world. Diversity is, today, a very positive thing. And that’s what stuck me forcibly on rereading The Chrysalids. It is a horrendous and frightening idea ruthlessly to ban people from society because of their differences. Of course that’s partly what Wyndham meant in 1955 too but, although the journey isn’t yet over, we’ve come a long since then – thank goodness.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy